William Christofides explores the question, does Atheism provide an adequate basis for morality?
In his book on Humanism, Jim Herrick writes: ‘For humanists, morality is a human construct underpinned by our biological development’.1
To say morality is a human construct is to say that it has no objective value. To be objective a thing must, by definition, be independent of human thought. For instance, the planet Jupiter is objective as it continues to exist whether humanity recognises it nor not, as are the stars and the cosmos. By Herrick’s definition, right and wrong do not ultimately exist, as they are simply what a society collectively decides is acceptable or not. For instance: rape, murder, torture, lying, slavery, and genocide appear wrong to us; but that is only because we decided it. If a society decided these things were acceptable, there would be no objective standard to refute them. Since morality is a human construct, different groups of humans can decide for themselves what is right and wrong. In some societies, human sacrifice is acceptable. If morality is a human construct, who are we to criticise their ideas?
This moral dilemma is illustrated by David Rose, who relates a true story of a Catholic missionary who attempted to convert a tribe who practiced human sacrifice. The Catholic missionary ‘compared the pure and simple rite of the Catholic Mass with the hideous practice of human sacrifice’. However, the tribe leader responded that ‘it was much less revolting to him … to sacrifice human beings than it was to eat the flesh and blood of God Himself.’ From this, Rose concludes: ‘Simply stated, intuitions are not universal, but expressions of our individual, social and historical characters and are – as such – arbitrary, true merely by luck’.2
In our own time it is clear that a society’s understanding of morality is never static. What was once considered acceptable (and even commendable) is later repudiated and condemned. This is powerfully illustrated in the #metoo movement. The French author Gabriel Matzneff made his literary career out of the sexual exploitation of underage girls. In 1974 he wrote: ‘To sleep with a child, it’s a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure.’3 Matzneff was not unique in his views. In 1977 a group of French authors, intellectuals, and philosophers (including Roland Barthes, Jacque Derrida, and Michel Foucault) signed a petition which called for the ‘decriminalisation of all consensual relations between adults and minors below the age of 15’.4 It is clear from these examples that it is not always safe to base one’s morality on what is socially acceptable.
Some Atheists and Humanists have tried to get around this moral relativism by appealing to human progress. They accept that our society has held abhorrent views in the past, and that other cultures today continue to hold them, but we have progressed beyond that! By using science and reason, they say, humanity can gradually discover what is correct and put aside backward and archaic values. Steven Pinker writes: ‘With our understanding of the world advanced by science and our circle of sympathy expanded through reason and cosmopolitanism, humanity could make intellectual and moral progress.’5 Such views of human progress were widely held by Humanists and liberal theologians in the 19th century. In a Christmas sermon in 1867, the liberal Anglican Benjamin Jowett said:
‘[There] seem to be very real improvements which we have ourselves witnessed. And they show that the world is not always getting worse and worse, but is upon the whole in some degree better than formerly, whatever we may be as individuals. There may be some temporary distress during the present year, but upon the whole we are all better off, both in material and moral well-being.
‘… I think that we certainly gather from the past, the lesson of confidence and hope of good upon the whole increased, and evils likely to be diminished, because they begin to be more realised. And although there are some dark spots on the horizon at present, yet there is no reason to think that any dangers are coming upon us which may not be averted by firmness and prudence; especially if we do not allow ourselves to be diverted from the plain duties by panic fears and unreasoning prejudices.’6
War and ‘reason’
Here the same values of reason, science, and progress were espoused. However, these optimistic views of human progress were severely tried by the devastating events of the 20th century. Again, Jim Herrick writes: ‘As a century of war, genocide and totalitarianism it was an appalling period’.7 The atrocities of the 20th century do not seem to fit into the 19th century’s optimistic narrative of ‘confidence and hope of good upon the whole increased, and evils likely to be diminished’. If people in the 19th century were wrong to think human society would gradually improve with the advances of science and reason, what makes us think we are right today?
The fact of history is that scientific advances do not necessarily result in moral improvements, and ‘reason’ has often been championed to justify the most bizarre, counter-intuitive, and abhorrent actions. The cause of ‘reason’ was perhaps at its height during the Enlightenment in 18th-century Europe. Whereas thinkers like Steven Pinker praise Enlightenment thinkers as those who applied ‘the standard of reason to understand our world, and [did] not fall back on generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts,’8 cultural historians have shown that these thinkers entertained many strange and irrational notions. Alister McGrath observes:
‘The 18th century [was not] consistently rational in every aspect. In fact, the Enlightenment is now recognised to be intellectually heterogeneous, including a remarkable variety of anti-rational movements such as Mesmerism and Masonic rituals. Mesmerism is of particular interest. The movement takes its name from Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815), a German physician who achieved considerable success in Paris. Mesmerism was grounded in astrology and the occult, and laid particular emphasis upon the therapeutic powers of animal magnetism and the potential of hypnotic séances. The strongly irrational character of this movement, which gained a considerable following within the Paris social élite on the eve of the French Revolution, is a reminder that the “Age of Reason” had its decidedly less-reasonable aspects.’9
This demonstrates that, contrary to Pinker’s assertion, ‘reason’ for the Enlightenment thinkers did not exclude the so-called ‘generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts’. If reason has so many faces, how can it be a reliable foundation for morality?
Nothing beyond ourselves?
If morality cannot be clearly discerned from societal norms, science, or reason, then where else can we look? Are we left in agnosticism and scepticism when it comes to moral issues? Such was the conclusion of the Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Starting from the premise ‘Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself,’ (thereby excluding the external authorities of society, science, and reason) Sartre concludes: ‘If I regard a certain course of action as good, it is only I who choose to say that it is good and not bad’. Elsewhere he states: ‘If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts.’10 Such then is the position the Atheists find themselves. There is no moral imperative beyond themselves to which they appeal. They may choose to largely subscribe to a Christian ethic, a Marxist ethic, or a Hedonistic ethic. The choice is theirs!
From what has been said so far, an objective source for morality needs to be: 1) independent of human thought, 2) transcend societal norms, and 3) transcend the limits of autonomous human reason. Christian theism meets all these requirements.
Firstly, Christianity holds that God is not bound by our subjective impressions and thoughts of Him. He is not, as liberal theologians like Feuerbach suggest, an embodiment of our ideals and aspirations. The Bible says: ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ This tells us that God is beyond our thoughts and is therefore objective. It is from such a source that an objective ground for morals can be found.
Being objective and high beyond us, God’s moral character and requirements transcend all societal norms, thus meeting the second criteria needed for objective morality. The Bible says: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.’ God’s goodness and love endure forever, and are an eternal objective standard against which we measure our morality. Again, the Bible says: ‘Be holy, because I am holy, and be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.’ When God defines goodness and perfection, He always points to Himself, since God is good and perfect.
Finally, being high beyond us, His standard of what is right for us necessarily transcends our limited scope of reason. The medieval poet and theologian Dante wrote: ‘Reason has short wings.’ Dante demonstrates how human reason is capable of incredible feats: it could search out the ways of Earth and Nature and could understand the workings of the human mind. However, when it came to the great questions of purpose and meaning, reason had to stop. In these matters Dante had to submit to revelation (symbolised in his poetry as the Divine Beatrice). This is what the Bible says: ‘The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.’ There are certain things we cannot comprehend which only God knows. Only God knows what is good, as no-one is good except God alone. Goodness would always remain secret to us if God had not revealed it to us in the Bible, and ultimately in His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, and when we look to Him, we see what goodness looks like in practice!
William Christofides is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University reading history. His interests range from Welsh history to Idealist philosophy. He is a member at St Mellons Baptist Church, Cardiff.
1 Jim Herrick, Humanism: An Introduction p.34.
2 David Rose, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: A Reader’s Guide p.17.
3 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/07/world/europe/ france-pedophilia-gabriel-matzneff.html
4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_petition_ against_age_of_consent_laws
5 Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now p.11.
6 Benjamin Jowett, Sermons: Biographical and Miscellaneous pp.361,367.
7 Jim Herrick, Humanism: An Introduction p.115.
8 5 Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now p.8.
9 Alister McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology, 1750-1990 p.15.
10 Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism & Humanism, trans. Philip Mairet, pp.30, 35, 41. Emphasis added.